Boxing In The Age Of Netflix

So much of boxing’s appeal is how it relates to the world around it, including media and their free market functions. As we move away from legacy media and towards a deeply consumer-driven world, boxing’s powers that be have ignored some business principles and suffered for it. They shrank their supply channel, undermined where their product demand is, and lagged behind the favorite media methods of their richest demographic.

One of the big factors in boxing’s 19th century American introduction was the economic climate. Instead of the artisan/apprenticeship system, we had a new class of unskilled factory workers crowding up cities.

The New York Police Gazette, New York Tribune, and the New Orleans Daily Picayune among many others found advertisers very willing to buy ad space because so many working men picked up the paper for boxing news. The same was true for radio and television when they started; boxing always played heavily in advertising considerations to sell beer to the common man.

The 21st century media climate is different than boxing’s 20th century establishment ties. And that fact is one of the reasons why, despite all of the positive trend lines in boxing in recent years, even in the past month or so we still have seen credible mainstream publications warning of the sport’s demise — because boxing resides in a less-visible netherworld between how it it once existed and how it could yet exist in the future.

In addition to chasing ad dollars, media outlets have to respond directly to consumers with unlimited options for content and direct contact with producers.

Netflix offers unlimited “Breaking Bad” binges, podcasts broadcast from every notable media source and a thousand negligible ones, and live streaming and blogs come from so many angles we couldn’t possibly consume it all. Comment sections and Twitter make every single publication and media figure directly accountable to viewers. As much as quality, we want interaction and control. We set the agenda.

In terms of media, it’s a buyer’s market. The companies that survive in a buyer’s market make their products as available as possible, and on those same media supply channels.

Boxing missed that market when they got on the pay-per-view and deluxe cable wagon. “As HBO goes, so goes boxing,” has been the standard since 1979 after ESPN’s global sports coverage and prime time football, baseball, and basketball fractured the sports market. Boxing worked itself into a narrow supply channel while the competition expanded theirs.

The opposite path worked well for other sports. Soccer, traditionally a punchline to American sports fans, has done well enough cultivating its viewership on ESPN2 that NBC Sports now broadcasts Major League Soccer. Mixed martial arts started as a niche market and steadily built to their general market share on FOX channels. Basically, the unknown products worked their way onto Wal-Mart shelves, opposite boxing’s trajectory from household necessity to specialty item.

Internally, boxing undermined its own shrinking market with the alphabet soup sanctioning organizations and flood of weight classes. The growth of the sanctioning organizations was a monetization method, just promoters trying to make a buck in a more competitive market, but it had the side effect of dulling interest.

Boxing is necessarily a battle for a single man’s supremacy. That’s the main market draw. Now the champion market is saturated with so many titles in so many different organizations that the title has become meaningless. Overabundance works for products like toothpaste, but in boxing the lure is dominance, not specialization.

American sports focus very intently on satisfying this market demand. NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS and their college counterparts all work towards their respective Super Bowls and Stanley Cups, and the eight figure championship viewer counts follow. Ninety champions defy consumer demand.

The UFC has skirted this issue with market dominance. MMA is popularly identified with one promotion even though many others exist. There are only a handful of UFC belts so interest in a champ isn’t spread thin.

The UFC also made savvy media choices with what the target demographic knows and uses. Just like those early newspapers put out the boxing word for the industrial workers’ dollar, the UFC identified their biggest market and used the appropriate marketing channels.

Since the rise of the Internet, the enviable 18-35 age demographic relies heavily on social media and non-traditional packages. The new media, young consumer base and young sport of MMA all grew in synergy with each other and fostered each other’s development the same way newspapers and boxing did with 19th century wageworkers.

The young see newspapers as antiquated and out of touch, and boxing carries the stain. The appeal of social media and extensive online video presence is participation and access. UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta says his company tries to foster a connection between fan and fighter, and it shows.

MMA stars litter the new media landscape to popularize their brand. We feel like we know them and relate to them as people, unlike the boxing community who are much less accessible by comparison.

We can’t expect an audience to love boxing if they can’t find boxing. Imagine the Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward trilogy available on Netflix, free online live streaming for the next Gennady Golovkin match and other select events, or a barrage of youthful online video packages on Sergio Martinez in his day-to-day. Imagine promoters with their fingers on the social media pulse, ready to respond to direct consumer demand by giving the most talked-about fighters more and better fights, or putting out regular podcasts to chat with the up-and-comers.

None of this is lost on the powers that be, of course. Besides ESPN2, HBO, and Showtime, we’re seeing good avenues opening up. Boxing’s push onto NBC Sports Network has been successful in promoting great fighters in tandem with Showtime contracts. Golden Boy Live! provides free programming on the newly minted Fox Sports 1. We see them on Twitter (which can admittedly suck, in Adrien Broner’s case). Boxing events have Facebook pages and the blogosphere is lit up with ring talk.

Boxing isn’t dying; we just need to see it living a little more.

DJ Summers is a journalist in Syracuse, N.Y. He covers business, politics, boxing and other vicious activities.